Using Smartphones and Tablets to Run and Monitor Processes from Afar
It’s the late 1980s and I’m sitting in a small room at Cornell University, surrounded on three sides by electronic and acoustical instruments. I control them all by hand. I fiddle with knobs here and there, press some buttons that drive stimuli and others that control data-capture devices. Most devices are no more “remote” than my arm’s reach or maybe a short roll on my chair.
Even back then, some scientists developed computer programs that controlled some processes remotely, or as remote as it got in most labs. I could have done that, because I’d written plenty of programs and I’d made many of the devices in my rig, so I knew how to control and access them. But it just didn’t make sense. Creating the remote controllers would have taken more time than they would have saved—at least in my opinion then—and I changed experimental setups too frequently to justify the investment of time in creating a controller anyway. So I just pounded out the experiments and data the old-fashioned way.
How times have changed! The concept of remote in today’s lab can mean starting and monitoring experiments from your office—or even farther away from the lab setup, if you like. And probably even more important, you don’t need to create the controllers yourself. It might be as simple as adding an app to your smartphone.
Sensing the spin
When asked by email how this technology changes what scientists can do, Ileana Place, Thermo Fisher Scientific global product manager, large capacity centrifuges, and Philip Hutcherson, Thermo Fisher Scientific global product manager, superspeed and ultracentrifuges, wrote: “Critical to the safe operation of bioprocessing procedures and the development of high-value products are the current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) regulations, which are enforced by the US Food and Drug Administration.” They added, “Broadly speaking, the cGMP regulations specific to the production of pharmaceutical drugs and active pharmaceutical ingredients state that each step of the manufacturing process must be carefully controlled to maximize the likelihood that the finished product meets its quality and design requirements.”
With Centri-Vue in a cGMP facility, scientists can keep records of centrifuge runs and provide an audit trail. As explained by Place and Hutcherson, “Data can be downloaded from the centrifuge in real time or by batch methods, depending on the needs of the customer.” They added, “Metadata tags, user information, and date stamps are included in the data logs to ensure complete data integrity.”
As needed, a scientist can use a smartphone app to track a run or monitor the progress of a network of centrifuges.
Sample processing steps like chromatography can also now be controlled remotely in many cases. For example, Bio-Rad (Hercules, CA) enhanced its NGC Chromatography System with various ways to control it remotely. According to Candice Cox, global product manager at Bio-Rad, “You can monitor and control the NGC system remotely using your smartphone or tablet device as long as you can access the network of the NGC system.” This requires the use of a Virtual Network Computing (VNC) viewer, but many are freely available online.
Both the VNC and UME options provide full control of the NGC system. Cox says, “Remote access with the VNC viewer is via ChromLab Touch Software.” She adds, “Methods can only be written on a PC, so if control is via VNC on a tablet or smartphone, the method needs to be created on a PC and sent to the NGC system.”
Analyzing bioethanol production
Remote control and access of instruments can really benefit industrial science environments, including production facilities. In September 2016, Shimadzu Scientific Instruments (Columbia, MD) released its BioEthanol Analyzer, which works with the company’s Prominence-i integrated HPLC platform. This platform provides real-time monitoring of the fermentation process that produces bioethanol. In brief, something starchy—like corn—gets ground and combined with yeast to ferment into alcohol, which can be used as fuel.
This analyzer can be controlled in various ways, says Mark Janeczko, Shimadzu’s marketing manager for chemicals and energy. One way is through a free software module called LabSolutions Direct. This connects a workstation to the analyzer, and it can be accessed through a Wi-Fi or Internet connection. “A lab manager or supervisor can log in from an office and have complete control,” says Janeczko. “They can monitor the status or start a run.” He adds, “You can collect data and analyze it through a browser.”
The company designed this system to be used in bioethanol plants. “This can be a very dusty factory environment,” Janeczko explains, “because they are usually grinding corn, and the lab tends to be in the middle of the production facility.” Consequently, the laboratory instrumentation needs to be kept clean. To do that, Shimadzu made this analyzer completely enclosed, with an air filtration system and purified mobile phase containers, which keeps out contaminants that contribute to bacterial growth.
With decreasing costs of petroleum-based sources of energy, bioethanol must be made as efficiently as possible. “The efficiency of conversion is important,” Janeczko says, “and to maximize this the process must be monitored along the way.” That’s just what the BioEthanol Analyzer does, and it can do so from a distance.
To further spread the use of remote control and access, some vendors develop ways to manage more devices with the same tool. The LabX laboratory software solution from Mettler-Toledo (Greifensee, Switzerland) makes an excellent example. “It can connect up to 30 Mettler-Toledo instruments of several different types,” says Isabelle Mattmann, the company’s product manager for balance software. The instruments can be balances, density meters, Excellence melting-point systems, Excellence titrators, SevenExcellence pH meters, refractometers, or UV-Vis spectrophotometers.
LabX can view the results from every instrument in real time. “All results are stored securely in a central database and can be accessed at any time,” Mattmann points out. “Each activity on an instrument is automatically recorded in a comprehensive audit trail.”
This technology goes beyond the obvious. “With true bidirectional integration, LabX offers much more than remote instrument control,” Mattmann says. For example, the LabX solution also keeps track of instrument operation. “If something is not correct with an instrument, LabX provides instant notification, enabling corrective actions to be taken immediately,” she explains. “For example, if an attached balance requires a routine test to be carried out, LabX can block it from being used until the test is successfully completed.”
Not for everyone
At the Mayo Clinic (Rochester, MN), Michael Joyner and colleagues in his lab study how humans respond to stress, such as losing blood or not getting enough oxygen. Joyner says, “My interest in monitoring is what it can tell people about their health or exercise performance.”
Despite the complexity of this, especially with Joyner’s interest in an integrated slant that combines various approaches to a scientific question, his lab does not need remote control of or access to instruments. As he explains, “We just have no need for this in the types of experiments we do.” But he quickly adds, “If we had a need, we would do it in a minute.”
So as cool as remote control can be, it’s not for everyone—not yet, anyway. With today’s tools, maybe I would have found a use to go remote on some forms of control or access. Clearly, today’s technology makes some processes more efficient than ever.